Almost every time I read an article about extended breastfeeding — or even breastfeeding past 6 months — someone comments that at a certain point, breastfeeding is “just for the mother.”
We need to talk about this, because quite frankly, I’m getting tired of it.
Implicit in all these comments about extended nursing being “just for the mother” is the idea that there’s something taboo about a growing child suckling at a mother’s breast, and that a mother who chooses to do this is abnormal or possibly deranged.
It’s not just internet trolls, either. Mothers are told by their pediatricians that their milk has no nutritional value past 12 months. They are told by their grandmothers that they are smothering their babies by continuing to nurse. They are told by their husbands that their breasts are meant for the bedroom and not for their babies.
I come from a very breastfeeding-friendly family, but when my first child was a baby, I was told I should cut out nighttime nursing before I felt ready to. I was told that I was restricting my own personal freedom by being tied down to my nursing toddler. No one seemed to understand that I wanted to continue breastfeeding. I felt silenced by the criticism and ashamed that my own desire to breastfeed ran so deep.
There are enough roadblocks to mothers continuing to breastfeeding as long as they wish — limited, often unpaid maternity leaves, and general lack of financial and emotional support for mothers are just some of these. Women should be able to choose how long they wish to breastfeed, whether it’s three weeks or three years. Some women choose not to breastfeed at all or are unable to for various reasons — these women deserve respect and acceptance as well.
But we take away a woman’s ability to make a free choice about how long she wishes to breastfeed when we add shame to the mix. Implying that mothers are sick or “selfish” for wanting to continue nourishing and nurturing their babies past a certain age is not only misinformed, but is demeaning to women, mothers, and children.
Most everyone agrees that breast milk has benefits for babies; with a little data, most will concede that breastmilk has benefits for toddlers as well. But breastfeeding is for mothers too. It’s not just something they give themselves over to for their babies. It benefits them physically and emotionally, however long or short they choose to do it.
Breastfeeding has lifelong health benefits for mothers. Some of the health benefits include decreased risk of breast cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. When breastfeeding is going well, breastfeeding feels to mothers like a natural, intuitive way to bond with their babies and toddlers (it isn’t the only way, but one that many mothers find fulfilling). It gives them confidence in their bodies and their instincts as mothers. Many women begin to love their bodies while breastfeeding.
So why do people think mothers are being selfish or twisted in their desires to nurse past a certain age?
First, many people think that by nursing long-term, mothers are infantilizing their children, keeping them “babies” for the mother’s own selfish needs.
There are certainly mothers who have psychological disturbances. There are mothers who are paranoid about unleashing their children into what they perceive as a scary, dangerous world. And some of these mothers might be nursing their children, but others might be bottle-feeding. There is no reason to think that nursing itself would be the cause of this smothering type of behaviors.
But most importantly, the idea of “making” a baby or toddler nurse against his or her will to suit a mother’s need is not only absurd, but impossible. Mothers of toddlers who have weaned suddenly, or before their mother expected it, will tell you this. Toddlers know what they want, and will only nurse if it is something they want or need.
Toddlers are natural explorers — venturing out into the world with abandon and gusto. Coming back periodically to their mother’s breast as they explore gives them a feeling of security. And it is this security — this knowledge that they have the comfort of the mother’s milk to come back to — that actually makes them more adventurous, not less. (And I will add here that breastfeeding is not the only way to create a secure child — many non-breastfeeding families do so beautifully).
The other insinuation in the idea that breastfeeding is “just for the mother” is that mothers are deriving some kind of sexual pleasure from breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is pleasurable, for mother and babies. But pleasure isn’t always sexual, and during breastfeeding, it isn’t. Pleasure can be a warm feeling of joy in the mind, body, and soul. That is what usually happens to babies and moms when they nurse.
The main hormone that causes this pleasure is called oxytocin. It’s found in breast milk and is released in a mother’s body when her baby suckles. Oxytocin is often called “the love hormone.” It calms moms and makes them feel sleepy and blissful.
And yes, breasts are also involved in sexual activities. I guess some can’t handle that. I understand — it’s hard to understand how a woman’s body can be both a place of nurturing and a place for sexual intimacy. But it can. And there is nothing wrong with that. Mothers — women — have an amazing capacity to switch between the two.
In fact, for people to assume that breasts have to be used for one purpose or another is to diminish the power of women. Women have the ability to handle the complexities inherent in their relationships to their bodies and their loved ones. They can give to others in their many roles, and still find ways to nurture themselves. It’s awe-inspiring. It’s badass.
Is it simply intimacy we are uncomfortable with? If we just talked about a mom and baby hugging would that be OK? Or is the problem because breasts are involved in all of this?
As a culture, we are confused about breasts and sex and mothers and breastfeeding and how they do and do not fit together. We are confused about nurturing, about how much is too much, about how and when to “let our children go.” And too many people just don’t have the facts. We don’t know how something like breastfeeding actually looks — that it’s a relationship, full of ups and downs, love and negotiation.
As a lactation consultant (IBCLC), I get many calls from mothers who are being told to wean by their families, doctors, and friends. Clearly, those around them feel uncomfortable with breastfeeding past infancy. But the mothers — whose bodies are flooded with instincts, hormones, and milk — do not feel this way.
Mothers need to feel that they are making the decision on their own terms, whenever they decide they are ready to be done. The shaming of women who choose to continue nursing after whatever arbitrary time they are “supposed” to wean needs to end.
It’s an issue of women’s rights, of choice — an issue of feminism. Women deserve to be nurtured in their decisions about how to nurture their children.
This post originally appeared on Role Reboot.